An intertesting concept also was the car air freshener in the car that took us to Kompong Trach - the guy had stuck an old air freshener container to the dash board and re-filled it with a 20/80 mix of Dieso and oil - good call. It really gets in to you clothes.....and your hair, your pack, your skin and your lungs! But we couldn't smell any BO on anybody!
I took a few pics on the drive back Phnom Penh. Cambodia is not unique in Asia for ingenious use of motorcyles and cars to transport people and goods but I thought these live birds and PETA might be a bit upset about the Cambodian methods!
An intertesting concept also was the car air freshener in the car that took us to Kompong Trach - the guy had stuck an old air freshener container to the dash board and re-filled it with a 20/80 mix of Dieso and oil - good call. It really gets in to you clothes.....and your hair, your pack, your skin and your lungs! But we couldn't smell any BO on anybody!
Some pics from an excursion to Kompong Trach.
I am typing this from a ferry on the Mekong, leaving Cambodia behind we are crossing into Vietnam this afternoon, staying in the Mekong Delta for a day or two and then off to Ho Chi Minh City.
We enjoyed our last couple of days in Cambodia as much as every other day – that is, we loved every minute of them. Despite planning to leave from Kampot for the southern most border in Vietnam at Hat Tien, we ended up returning to Phnom Penh.
On the way back to Phnom Penh we stopped in to see the Caves and Karst mountains around Kampong Traech. This is a natural wonderland but sadly has it’s own grim tales of recent horrors. This is where 3 backpackers, including Australian David Wilson, were kidnapped and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1994. The pics to follow give an idea of the amazing caves, many of which lead into mountains and then exit to natural valleys and rock pools surrounded entirely by un-scalable cliffs.
We didn’t cross to Vietnam in South Cambodia because the island resorts on Phu Quoc to the south of Vietnam seemed to be a bit full. We took the No Vacancy signs (well, the no room in the inn emails!) as a pointer to get back on the horse……which horse? A Cambodian River ferry of course.
What better way to leave one country and enter another than by traveling along a mighty river. And the bonus is that this boat has no air-con! Why is that a bonus? Because the windows open, the breeze flows through and it is like an afternoon on an Aussie beach with a steady Nor-Easter blowing from off-shore. And on today’s boat there are only 26 internal seats with room for about 16 people out back (aft we’ll call that), all up capacity for ……well, over 40. So the 6 adults, 3 kids and 2 crew are pretty comfy!!!! A French couple, a Norwegian family and us!
As we leave Cambodia I again want to point out that never have I been so repeatedly surprised by the honesty and simple integrity of the people we have dealt with here. And dealing with Cambodians is always a happy experience. Sure they are new to tourism and dealing with masses of westerners so some things get lost in translation but we never felt that there was a malicious intent behind any event of the last few weeks.
Sadly it is hard to visit Cambodia and not spend a long time contemplating it’s recent past. Whilst it is now a land of great opportunity, it will be a long time before the masses reap the benefits. Talking to young Cambodians can be intriguing. We met Touch at a pizza restaurant, he is working there whilst studying law. His mother passed away when Touch was Molly’s age and his father remains in the country, farming. Somehow he pays US$400 each year for his university fees. He is doing well and yet has no idea how he will get work when he finishes his degree. When I suggested he should be open with his lecturers about his concerns so that they could provide direction on suitable avenues to explore he just smiled, explaining that if they knew of work they would give it to family members and friends first. At least Touch has ideals and dreams of helping himself and his country, even if he is struggling to imagine how they can be realised.
I guess the last observation of Cambodia is that it has so much more to offer than just Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh is a very cool, smart Asian capital neatly packaged along the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. The southern coast has beaches and islands with steady development to meet all tastes. There are hidden temples everywhere, caves throughout the country that rival similar attractions in Thailand and Vietnam and there are waterways and towns that are just begging to be explored.
Following the sunset cruise we enjoyed an evening and breakfast chatting with Paul and Rachel (they clearly liked our guesthouse as they were still returning to it for meals from their jungle hideaway). They were cautious of telling us any of their plans in case we sabotaged their hotel bookings and we carefully took note of every tour company they had ever used to be sure not to share their experience on any magical mystery tours.
What struck me was that clearly Paul had a compassionate side and was very concerned with my failure to communicate with Darren – especially the bit where I had asked if the water was clean at the river mouth and I had thought that Darren had replied, “yeah, sure”. It is not clear if he said “yeah, sure” or “yeah, for assholes” but Paul was damned sure I would not have a failure to communicate again.
The evening after the cruise he presented us with a Point It book, a very clever translation tool without words, only pictures. As I thumbed through it I quickly found the "don't swim here!" page that would have saved me from my present predicament of skin infections, weeping ears and bleeding eyes……….
Having already spent 3 days in Kampot without anything more adventurous than a walk around town, we decided to commit to a sunset cruise. But not just any sunset cruise, we were going to leave at 4pm on Darren’s Sunset Cruise, inclusive of a can of Angkor Beer or a glass of Laughing Lizard wine, all the way from Australia (like Darren).
We had to cross the street from our guesthouse to get to the boat – not a difficult task in most countries and in Kampot it only required us to wait for one cyclist and a guy pushing a large trolley full of cardboard. Kampot is quite sleepy.
The boat was a simple local banana boat, entirely of wood except the bamboo and leaf roof. Powered by a portable generator attached to a long tail drive shaft, it appeared appropriate for a cruise down to the ocean past mangroves and fishing villages. One of Darren’s flyers promised an extensive selection of music but the lack of speakers and a music player, coupled with the lack of power suggested the music might not be part of our package.
At 4.00pm, our departure time, another couple joined us. They were from England, although on this day they had not traveled as far. In fact they had been in our guesthouse over the road so we had exchanged simple pleasantries with them previously (I say simple pleasantries because it is unlikely these two could go beyond that – clearly way out of their depths in this Heart of Darkness like situation, we wondered when they would ask for life jackets!).
Darren turned up a little late but was sporting some beer and red wine so we forgave him his tardiness. The drinks were thrown on ice by the boatman (I would call him the Captain but I was pretty sure that was Daren’s position and clearly it was his calling in life) and off we went, with Darren heaving the front of the boat of the river bank and clambering aboard.
As the engine kicked into life and the boatman ran it through both ends of it’s rev-range, Darren ran through the pricing for beers, wine and soft drink. It was a bit like listening to the old lady next door telling you about her Azalia’s whilst you are mowing the lawn with a 15 year old two stroke Victa – except I was actually interested in the price of the beers.
Darren then said something about Manly – I assumed he was talking about me but as it turned out that was where he was from in Australia – and surprised us all when he said that he really didn’t have much of a maritime background!!??! We started to wonder who the Captain was…..
As we cruised the tranquil waters of the Kampong Bay River we fell into quiet solitude, the water lapping at the bow, the engine now only a gentle hum and the breeze cool against our skin – and some bloody whining woman from Croydon telling us all about every damn wrong she had ever suffered at the hands of Cambodian transportation and accommodation agencies. To be fair, it saved us all from Darren’s David Attenborough impersonation and as it turned out, we featured in many of the wrongs……
It all started back in Siem Reap when we booked into a Hotel online that had already told me to my face that it was full. So at 9.00pm on our first night we had a visit from the manager demanding that we would have to leave the next day and then come back the day after – no problems he said, he would put us up in another Hotel next door. I smiled, frowned, smiled again and said no, find some other bunny.
Meanwhile, our cruise companions, Paul and Rachel, were staying in the same Hotel in Siem Reap, at the same time. In fact I remember them hogging sun-lounges by the pool on the afternoon we arrived. I mean, visit Siem Reap to laze around a pool – how about seeing some temples and giving us some space people, we have a child!
Anyway, I digress. The point is that they were at that point quite happily accommodated – or so they thought. I know not what occurred next, but they weren’t at breakfast by the third day and we were, so obviously the booking problems had been sorted (to our satisfaction at least).
Then we decided to engage Paul and Rachel – we did at least have in common our current ‘digs’. Or so we thought. Here in Kampot management had once again sized them up and moved them on. In fact at this point, 40 minutes into the cruise, I think we actually passed their new guesthouse!
And so the cruise became an opportunity to swap travel stories – kind of a “who took the worst bus trip ever versus the ferry from hell” type competition. And Darren didn’t really have much to add.
When we reached the coast Darren invited us to wander around on the sand banks and suggested a swim would be fine. I asked if the water was clean here, being the mouth of the local river that also serves a variety of community functions and he assured me it was.
So after walking around, looking at dead crabs, dead star fish and dead fish, I decided to swim in the Sea in Cambodia. Sand soon gave way to mud on the bottom so I kind of just bobbed around and noticed that it was typically brown despite being tidal.
Due to heavy clouds we actually didn’t see a sunset, although I think we would have been about 45 minutes early anyway, so Darren barked some Captain’s orders in Khmer and informed us we would head out to see to get a “feel for the coastline and have a better perspective”. Aye, aye, Captain!
We pushed off and headed away from the sand banks and then I noticed some flotsam on the water. It all looked the same, kind of like little, floating pieces of poo. Yeah, that seemed to be what it was, and lots of it. Great, I just swam around the outlet pipe of the only existing town amenity in Kampot, the sewerage system. We traveled on in silence, everyone clearly thinking the same thing – later that evening Paul and Rachel confessed to me their suspicions, just after they asked me if I showered when I got back from the cruise!
The ocean voyage lasted just long enough to see the effluent pipe and then the Captain had us turning for home, still pointing out local landmarks with some dubious accuracy.
On return we passed the local fishing fleet heading out to sea for their nightly work, which was pretty interesting actually, particulalrly as Darren yelled "Ahoy" (or the Khmer equivalent?) to every boat that passed within 500 metres.
We have spent most of our time in Kampot relaxing, doing school work with Molly and catching up on journals and blogs. We were very fortunate that we chose accommodation that allowed us to do it so well.
The Rikitikitavi guesthouse is an old rice barn converted to 5 guestrooms, with an open air bar and restaurant deck area at the front, upstairs. Great breezes all day and even a day of rain gave us the coolest temperatures we had experienced since early January in Australia’s high country. It was still low 30’s every day but not too still and sticky.
The room had a TV with DVD player so Molly caught up with her favourite episodes of Glee (and converted me to being a Gleek) and did a lot of dancing and singing whilst we were upstairs blogging and writing.
The evening offered a few choices in the town but we found the food at Rikitikitavi was superb and the setting by far the best in town so we sat and watched sunset after sunset from the restaurant.
Kampot itself is a curious place. In the first 3 days we saw more westerners in Kampot then we would see in Johor Bahru in 1 month, yet it is just a very old town, mostly run down with a pretty river (that you can’t swim in). Sure the old colonial French architecture is interesting but rarely in good condition and there are some local tours to mostly interesting activities, but there seems to be no single reason for the towns popularity.
There are quite a few expatriates in Kampot and unlike many parts of Asia, the female side of relationships is also expat. The local tourist magazines are also very comprehensive and give Kampot a lot os space and a lot of praise so perhaps that draws people. For us we can’t complain, it was a very relaxing 6 days to catch up on everything and do nothing.
As we were around the guesthouse all day every day we met other guests and found that most were very well traveled – perhaps that is why they were in Kampot, they had already been everywhere else in the region!?? Reuedi, from Germany, arrived on the same day as us and left one day earlier so we spoent most evenings talking to him over a few drinks, eventually bringing him into a few hands of UNO and letting him win the 2010 Kampot UNO Championship.
We also managed to have our 10th wedding anniversary in Kampot. After a few cocktails with sunset we were treated to a bottle of wine on the house and then settled into a lovely dinner, with Reuedi also joining the three of us. After dinner was more drinks and we encouraged Walt (English spelling) and Addei (correct spelling I hope) from the Netherlands to join us. They had traveled extensively and had some very interesting stories and cool perspectives from different trips – as an un-cultured Australian I could only teach them the meaning of the Dutch Oven and the Dutch Hand-Grenade so I feel a little embarrassed. We had a great anniversary.
After the rather dry and hot boat ride to get to Phnom Penh we thought it might be time to throw caution to the wind and stay up-market. Not that we are back-packing on $20 / day but sometimes finding the right accommodation for the three of us to fit into takes time and energy and after the trip we had I didn’t think we had the latter. So this time we started near the top as far as accommodation goes and decided we would see how it went.
The Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh has a relatively short history on the world stage but for Cambodia it has actually become an icon and has seen a lot in less than 20 years. Based around an open air bar and restaurant with a roof top bar overlooking the Tonle Sap / Mekong River junction, there are also 5 or 8 suites available.
I was expecting to pay about AU$100 for a hotel style room but accepted that we would at least get a great balcony, had a bakery and café on hand and I assumed the air con would be better than the Tonle Sap ferry.
So when we looked at the room and they offered a significant discount, we were pretty happy – until they said that an extra bed and breakfast for Molly would be another US$40, taking it over $100 and suddenly making the room seem a little small.
But then for some reason they offered us the Directors Apartment for US$100 even, I bartered with them to get Molly’s breakfast included and we went to see the room.
We walked back out into the street, down past a souvenir shop, art gallery and restaurant and then up some rather dark and dingy stairs. The door opened onto a long hall and soon we discovered the apartment had two king bedrooms and a lounge and office area, plenty of air-con and a balcony overlooking the rivers with a ceiling fan. Yep, we’ll take that thanks!
Breakfasts were quite elaborate, including eggs benedict and bowls of fresh fruit, whilst along the promenade a little further were competing pizza restaurants, most of which had Happy in their names.
Phnom Penh itself was a really pleasant city. A few over-zealous tuk-tuk and taxi ‘salesmen’ but they were almost always well humoured. In most parts the city seems orderly and clean and the area along the river front is particularly beautiful. Through some of the industrial areas on the way to Kampot there were some particularly over-polluted waterways and swamps but overall Phnom Penh seemed quite charming.
The two main sites we wanted to visit in Phnom Penh were the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (at the old S-21 Prison and Interrogation centre) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The Khmer Rouge period seems such a part of why Cambodia is as it is today (both in respect of development and more importantly the positive happiness of the people) that these two monuments / memorials deserve international attention and respect.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Choeung Ek Stupa or Memorial Charnel, containing the remains of over 8,000 victims recovered from mass graves at the site, is that it is just one of hundreds around the country. The Killing Fields were the places the Khmer Rouge took their victims for execution – and there are reportedly over 340 of these sites around Cambodia, many of them fed from interrogation centres like S-21.
Our visits to both sites were sad, chilling and left us quite humble knowing that we had enjoyed our schooling in England and Australia whilst unspeakable horrors befell the nation of Cambodia.
The official web-site is quite detailed and well presented and can be found at the links page.
Or should this blog be titled Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink!!
And so the story begins……………..we had two ways to get to Siem Reap – ferry on the Tonle Sap, largest fresh water lake in Asia, or bus. Both reportedly take about 5 hours, both were reportedly air conditioned and for us the big decider was that one was a unique method of transport, combining a tour of a significant natural feature whilst the other was just a bus ride.
There was a considerable difference in price – originally this stemmed from the ferry service being much quicker and smoother than the bus along the highway (with a reputation for being one of the worst national highways in the world) – however these days with improvements to the roads, I expect it is due to the fact that only western tourists seem to use the service. Why would anyone else pay US$33 for the boat when the bus does the same trip for US$4?
Anyway, for us, we were keen to see the lake, glad to not be on the roads for 5 hours and glad to be on a different type of transport. The ferry in the pictures looked similar to boats we had used previously and like buses in this part of the world, our experience was that they are often icy cold requiring jumpers when inside and with access to everywhere on the boat so easy to get fresh air.
We were actually surprised that the boats were still running as they stop at some point during the dry season when the upper reaches of the lake recedes and some of the main channels become too shallow for the ferries.
The ferry was due to leave at 7am so we were up well before 6am, packing and grabbing a small breakfast before the pick-up down to the ferry port. A ute-taxi pulled up but as it was already quite full and two other hotel guests were also heading to the ferry port, we were asked to wait for a mini-van. When it hadn’t turned up by 6.40 we started to wonder how good the communication system was with the ferry to ensure it waited. We figured there was still a 20-30 minute drive to the ferry port so we were keen to get moving.
When the van pulled up 5-10 minutes later we realized things were probably OK as it was full of other tourists. It was actually quite full of tourists and their luggage so Molly and I got to ride shot-gun up front whilst Julia dived into the back to share a seat with an Italian guy and his cameras, tripod and luggage.
Molly and I found the trip very amusing – we kept turning back to check if anyone wanted any adjustments to the air-con and to make sure that people behind us had left room for the next two passengers. There was actually no air-con and all of the seats were full less one that had 3 large backpacks on it so I thought my sarcasm was quite clever at 7 in the morning. Only Julia smiled so we figured it might be a long trip.
As we pulled up at another hotel I didn’t think that my suggestion that more people were still to get in would become reality. Yep, one more so now the bus was full, full.
We headed away from town and assuming the ferry was waiting, we were only about 10 minutes late. And then we stopped again.
Molly and I were laughing out loud when we looked at the front of the next hotel and saw two young ladies with big packs pick themselves up and move over to the back of the van to put the luggage in the back. Next they appeared at the door next to Julia and the driver grabbed their packs and stacked them next to Julia before pointing firstly to a back seat where he beckoned the people to squeeze up and then secondly pointed to the packs that were now the extra required seat. 14 tourists, their assorted backpacks and suitcases, one Cambodian driver and a 1980’s Nissan Urvan designed to carry at least 11 people in comfort. Molly and I loved it – some of the tourists further back didn’t and by the time we got to the ferry port and they saw the ferry, they were getting a little bit short fused.
The ferry was not like the pictures. It was wooden, open aired, narrow and floating in what really looked like a sewer drain. A large sewer drain but a muddy, grey and rubbish filled sewer drain none the less. To add to the miserable picture, locals surrounded us and implored us to buy water from them – “there is no water on the boat, you must buy now!” Try that one with the next guy, lady, he might have been born sometime in the last week but not us, we have traveled in Asia, there is always water for sale, complimentary water bottles on transport and locals willing to do anything to make money – like sell me a bottle of water! I’ll take mine later thanks!
As we all charged on I soon realized the rush was futile – all the wooden seats were full and standing room was only available next to the obnoxiously large engine toward the back of the boat. People complained, blamed others and sweated annoyance, but not me. This was my hour of glory, I would lead my family to a sanctuary and our ferry ride would be memorable AND enjoyable. I charged back to the front past cursing Englishman and grumbling Frenchman, swung back at the front deck and climbed onto the roof. Past some of the luggage that people had actually let go of in an effort to make their journey less cramped and back to the rise in the roofline – the perfect seat. Molly and Julia joined me and we very happily prepared for the next 5 hours. A German guy living in Bangkok and his Italian friend on holidays climbed up to join us and the 5 of us had the best seats in the house. Cameras came out and as we pushed off from the jetty, Julia wondered if maybe this was just a canal taxi linking us to the “real” ferry waiting in deeper water. We roof dwellers weren’t convinced and dismissed it as wishful thinking.
Heading East along the river/creek/sewer/drain we passed a lot of boats, mostly in dry dock (if you could call marooned on the river bank docked) but with plenty of small boats busily heading both ways up the river. It soon became apparent that we were the biggest boat on the river at this point and that perhaps we weren’t always actually floating – that would infer no contact with land or the bottom and judging from the high revs and flying mud it appeared we were dragging.
Judging the fairly direct distance to Phnom Penh by water, calculating our current speed, remembering the suggested 5 hour travel time and analyzing the overall situation, I assessed that when we did finally hit open water (assuming it existed) we would have to be in what is perhaps the fastest inland water passenger ferry in the world to see Phnom Penh before hi-tea was served at the Royal Palace. I checked over the side from my vantage point on the roof and doubted that could be true.
30 minutes into the journey, still dragging on the bottom and the river hadn’t become any wider when they seemed to give up – some might call it a navigational error but when the river bends left, regardless of where you think the deepest channel is, it seems pointless to just keep going straight until you hit the far bank!!?? I mean, I’ll be the first to admit that a salty old sea-dog like me knows very little about riverine water craft and their navigation but hey, it really just looked like he must have thrown his hands up, killed the throttle and just let her run aground, And we did, stuck fast and no sticks in the water or reverse thrust were enough Captain!! Scotty gave her more power and still nothing – so three guys who I assume were crew jumped into the water and like Bogart started pushing. With a dopey old Frenchman with an “I know boats” frown waving a bamboo pole around dangerously, I guess to scare the leeches away, the Bogart-three pushed and then floatation was again achieved. Well, we weren’t stuck, but go back a few paragraphs and you’ll remember that maybe we were never really floating.
30 metres on shore, high up above the stubby mangrove trees were triangular flags waving hello from bamboo poles, no doubt the channel markers for navigation in the wet season. They seemed to be just teasingly laughing at our progress on this day.
A boat had pulled alongside and a young girl came aboard with cans of soft drink and beer. Aha, as we expected, it is always easy to get these things, even on the feeder drain to the largest freshwater lake in Asia. No water and the cans not cold so we just got a can of Sprite to put away for later if Molly wanted it. As soon as I bought it I was thinking it would probably be going into some mini-bar fridge in our hotel at night but it was nice for Molly to know she could have a drink if she wanted one later.
The boat seemed to be leaning toward the side that the drinks seller was tethered to so we joined in the fun and looked over the roof – it was all about the photo opportunity!
Whilst the daughter sold drinks, her Mum maintained the boat alongside, inching ahead to allow each row of seats to get photo’s – what of? Well the younger brother and his python of course. To be honest, they both looked so stunned that I couldn’t help thinking the snake was drugged and the kid was suffering from a transfer of the drug through a serious bite! Interestingly enough another boat pulled along the other side and initially both the boy on that boat and the snake looked the same. Yet when they veered off to their floating village they were suddenly joyous and waving happily – maybe they just didn’t like the pressure of the spotlight and fame!
As this was going on we were leaving the drain behind and open waters beckoned. At this point there is a large floating village stuck out in the lake and as we motored past, up ahead was a vision of white, gleaming steel – the real ferry!
Clearly things were as Julia had thought – the old boat was just a taxi between port and ferry, the new boat so powerful and modern that it could not be risked in the old sewer drain we had come down. Air-con, coach seating and probably even a cabin steward – but we were a little sad that we would have to leave our rooftop perch after only an hour…..what, an hour already, wow, this new boat must be fast!
So the transfer was orderly – mostly. Luggage was transferred by the three Bogarts and passengers made there way on, realizing pretty quickly that there was ample room for all. There was a front saloon cabin with an outer triangular seat that would probably sit at least 15 and then the main cabin had room for probably 70 people so things were looking comfy! Everyone went into the coach seating but I explored the saloon, weighing up its viability for us – front of the boat so we would get to Phnom Penh first, had it’s own air-con unit, good seats although low backed, windows had limited viewing. And then some Frenchmen came in blabbering in their native tongue, lounging around to test the seat quality and then gesturing and apparently calling for all of their French friends to join them. I left them to it as the place filled to capacity. Shortly after some sort of patriotic French song could be heard being sung, I guess to symbolically put behind the tears and grumpiness of the last 90 minutes and congratulate themselves on their most recent of victories, the Francophying of a small room but in some small way also demonstrating a superiority unachievable by the “others” on the boat! Yes, they would be the first to Phnom Penh.
So as the big V12 Yanmar diesel belched black smoke out it’s twin stackpots through the rear roofline, the revs rose and we pulled away from our old ferry…..well, pulled away is quite accurate, as would the term dragged away or maybe even sludged away. Remember bigger boat, bigger motor, probably bigger propellers and thus much more mud getting ripped up from the bottom as we pushed through the Tonle Sap’s shallow depths.
I went up top to explore and found the engine at the rear, which I must say did look impressive, even if half its energy was lost through sound and what was left had to struggle with the murky goo of the Tonle Sap lake bed. Fortunately there is a hand rail around the inner part of the walkway around the boat – very handy as there is no railing of any sort on the external part of the walkway. Sure I can swim but that is one useless skill too many when your feet plug 2 feet into thousand year old mud on your descent into the lake and leave just your hair out of water, much to the delight of the French photographers! Note to self, stay vigilant when up top!
The very front of the boat did have a small seating area catching plenty of breeze and in full view of 15-20 smirking Frenchmen in their Salon Avant as I imagine they were referring to it now – probably not how I wanted to spend the next 3 hours, 50 minutes. Assuming we were still running to time of course.
So back inside to test the air-con and coach seating. Walking in I noted the doors were tied open, no doubt to keep the air con at a reasonable temperature and to not freeze anyone up the front of coach class where the big air-con purred out her cooling hum. Good call I thought walking past the big vent blowing out cool air but then moved two more rows rearward and started to think it might take a while for things to cool down further back. I sat down and played a bit of musical chairs with Molly as we now had 5 seats between the three of us – pretty roomy now that coach class was sans-Francais. Restless as I was, I figured the roof would be more fun until at least the air-con spread its charm further rearward. Yep, I’ll go up top and come back in when the cabin steward does his rounds with food and drinks……….
Up with the luggage is definitely the place to be, particularly in the morning air. I read a little, watched some clouds form and disappear and watched the mess our wake made, wondering if and when the black mud would stop bubbling to the surface as we tore up the lake bed. Whilst we seemed to now be making good speed there were still regular hiccups.
Stop, start, stop again and send someone under the boat seemed to be an important part of the routine. Over the course of the journey the chief engineer (well I assume that is his title, he lived with the engine and the only other crew with us now was the Captain) collected garbage bags, rice bags, Hessian material, rope and fishing nets. Apparently it is all quite bad for the propellers and no doubt quite prevalent on the bottom of the lake, the thing we were skimming along to get to Phnom Penh.
And so it went……..for hour after hour. And the cabin steward didn’t appear. Nor did any water. And then as I returned to our seats, I realized the open doors and air-con were conspiring to create a bubble of warm air in the back of the cabin - actually warm is not an accurate description. And just after sitting down the Sauna took its first victim - Molly had the sort of bleeding nose that a prize fighter wishes to inflict on his opponent. The sort that is difficult to contain and more difficult to stop. One sarong wasn’t enough and a trip up top only cooled her momentarily. Two nice ladies from the Netherlands very kindly offered some water to help which I used very sparingly, knowing I had nothing to offer in return. A lovely Korean man behind us offered a wet-wipe which at this point I politely declined, thinking I may need to call that favour in a little later. Molly continued to bleed but to her credit, she did so very much in silence and with grace. By the time things were under control I had been in the cabin for at least 10 minutes – it was quickly becoming apparent that this may be the limit of exposure for me as I slopped out of my seat and dripped my way back up top.
And so we continued on……..for hour after hour and then we entered the Tonle Sap river canal. Gone was the magical inland sea where you couldn’t see land in any direction, now things were getting interesting!
The river banks were sparsely populated but very entertaining – padi’s, water buffalo, playing kids, fishermen, washerwomen, small boats. But I was starting to wish I could have a drink……so much water and having been in the sun now for almost 4 hours, I was wind burned, sun burned, hot, dry and really, really thirsty. Sprite time!
In hindsight we may have been better injecting the Sprite because between the three of us, with Julia and I only having two mouthfuls to spare the child, the fluid seemed to do so little. And yet when on buses and trains where they provide water we always curse having carried so much ourselves, unnecessarily burdening ourselves. We thought we were so clever.
We started eyeing off other passengers – and we weren’t thinking of asking for their precious water!! By now we had chatted quite a bit with the Dutch ladies and we were all quite sure that we would not quickly forget this trip. 6 hours into it now we were amazed that from the top we still couldn’t see any signs of the city’s fringe – clearly, we thought, Phnom Penh is very agricultural and just around the next river bend.
By now the three of us were on the roof and to be honest, but for the absence of drinking water, we were all really enjoying it. We had been running at high speed along a meandering river for the last two hours and every bend opened up to new scenery and visual entertainment. If only we could drink from the Tonle Sap………..not quite delirious enough yet!
And then a ferry crossing was passed and I started to guess from a tourist map that we must be only 45 km from Phnom Penh – oh, even at 45km/hr that is still a long way off! Then we passed another ferry crossing 10 minutes later and then another……….and an hour later still no city.
So after over 7 hours something stirred our imaginations and lifted our spirits – a bridge. And not just any old bridge – a really big bridge and, therefore, we figured an important bridge and, therefore, we figured it must be close to an important place and thus the city must be close. And it was. And we were happy.
So as we left the boat and loaded our luggage onto a tuk-tuk I thought that the first priority should be to first get some bottled water. I walked around the tuk-tuk and as I went to enter a store I looked up and saw a Pringles can hurtling through the sky at me! I ducked and weaved and then as the monkey that threw it jumped along and set off an alarm on the store, I also jumped around. Looking back at Julia and Molly who hadn’t seen the monkey, I think they just thought I was still getting my land legs or that maybe I was just hallucinating. I hoped the monkey wasn’t representative of the other residents of this new city.
Siem Reap is a neat little town, smaller than we expected and with a very attractive old French quarter filled with bars and restaurants in colonial buildings. Traffic is not too busy in the old quarter which is useful when trying to get used to crossing the road when (most of) the cars obey right-hand side of the road traffic rules.
We stayed in a fairly central location, 5-10 minutes walk from 3 different markets and the old quarter. The heat in Siem Reap was at times quite oppressive, particularly in the still of the evening. Riding the tuk-tuk’s was always cool, particularly out of the city itself but overall we think that the peak of the dry season may not be the best time to visit Siem Reap and we could imagine how the rains would reduce the dust, increase the greenery and fill the various pools, fields and rivers in the area, both those associated with Angkor Wat and those around town.
In the afternoons we played a lot of UNO and Pass the Pigs in between snacking and drinking. We met some interesting people who had all sorts of reasons for being in Siem Reap. Henry and Jeanne from Utah dined next to us for an evening and it was interesting to hear of the travels they had completed whilst teaching English in various parts of Asia and Africa. A more interesting diversion for “empty-nesters” than many take.
We noted that at Siem Reap you can basically use Thai Baht, US dollars and Cambodian Riel as you please. The actual currency for the country is a mix of US dollars and Riel and for some reason the Baht is very popular, particularly closer to the border, so paying for things and receiving change can be more than a little confusing.
To visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples was quite an easy and close trip from Siem Reap. We had already identified a likeable tuk-tuk driver so we arranged a time and planned an afternoon at the temples. Julia negotiated the route with Songh and he was very honest and open with his bartering. Siem Reap has a fairly fixed pricing system for tuk-tuks and taxi journeys, kind of a balance between allowing Cambodians to benefit from Western tourists and ensuring that Western tourists aren’t robbed blind by greedy middle men. It works and everyone seems to get a good deal. Initially we were bartering hard but it is difficult to justify saving yourself .50 cents when you know that every other tuk-tuk driver is getting a fairly fixed higher price. Regardless of your thoughts on bartering and pricing for tourists versus locals, in Siem Reap we never felt that we were being conned or robbed blind for transport.
There were several occasions when the dining bill had discrepancies and no doubt this is a small method of including staff tips without actually needing the customer to tip!! We queried our bills on 3 occasions and saw people next to us do it on 3 occasions also so I don’t think it was coincidental or poor arithmetic. It was always small amounts but for anyone visiting, take more than a cursory interest in the bill at the end of the night.
Back to Angkor, eh? First stop was the ticket office, where we found that Molly would have been free – if some one would believe that she was 10. We haven’t carried passports anywhere as all rooms have had safes so we didn’t have proof and it cost us US$20 but we had always expected to pay for Molly so on we went.
For me Angkor was surprisingly large and incredibly impressive. Whilst not as old as the great pyramids at Giza, the work that has gone into the Angkor complex of temples makes it at least as impressive and the size is amazing.
The running of the area is well done with local sellers restricted from within the temples grounds so it is quiet and relaxing – and when you want an icy cold bottle of water you can easily get one!
As it turned out our tuk-tuk driver was a trained guide and had an impressive knowledge of the main Angkor and Bayon temples. His English was good and he was clearly a proud and passionate Cambodian and at Angkor there is plenty for Cambodia to be proud of. We can’t pretend to be Temple nuts who love detailed, historical accounts of how each and every stone was laid, but at Angkor there is a great mix of history, stories, architecture and engineering to impress anyone. Whilst I feel I could have spent two days wandering around under my own steam, the truth is we enjoyed about 5 hours and that was plenty for us to see a good mix of structures in various states of repair (and reclamation by the jungle). Some people get a 7 day pass and I can understand that, equally I would suggest that if you got a 3 day pass you would get value. We would love to see the complex in the wet, particularly to see the pools filled with water, the lichens green and less dust! The main moats remain full in the dry so you still get a sense of the engineering that went into the aqua systems, but between dust, heat and smoke haze, we didn’t feel like staying for sunset.
As with so many things, pictures tell the story better than words………………